Behind the scenes
Anatomy of a gig: how to put on a show
Just how do you put on a show at a 15,000-seat arena? It isn’t easy… But What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision‘s John Steward has gone to find out
They are the people who organise. Who lift. Who toil and sweat. They make your night possible. Without them, there would be no show; no music. They are the unsung, often unseen heroes of every gig. They are the crew, and this is what they do…
It’s 7am and Andy Reynolds is up again after snatching four hours’ sleep on a tour bus. He’s outside the arena, marshalling ovens, fridges, chefs, catering assistants and food. Lots of food.
Andy is the tour manager – the chap who makes sure it gets done. All of it. And it can’t get done if the crew can’t eat; aside from showtime, breakfast is the most important part of the day.
It provides the fuel for the long, hard slog that is Load-In. Entire trucks’-worth of equipment – stage blocks, lighting rigging, the lights themselves, PA systems, sound desks, drum kits, guitars, microphones, miles of cabling, electric motors, chains, lighting desks, amplifiers and more – must be emptied into the empty arena and built into the slick, modern stage set of a huge touring show. No wonder they need decent grub.
They need time, too. For a stratospheric act, it starts way before showtime. Way before. The likes of Rihanna or Aerosmith don’t just tour on a whim. The dates can be decided up to a year before the tickets go on-sale, and it’s here that things already start to become concrete.
Concert promoters – the people you buy the tickets from – place bids with the band’s management to put on the tour. Then there’s the small matter of booking the venues. The promoters must book a different 15,000-seat arena, perhaps every night, for six months or more. The LG Arena is often one of many stops along the way.
That’s when Andy is booked. His job is to get everything together for the show. Big ones – your Bon Jovis and your Beyoncés – need military levels of planning from the get-go. There are set designers, lighting designers, sound designers, costume designers, staging companies, firms that deal with the band’s rider… they’re all consulted, meetings are had, and the show begins to take shape.
Of course, no one has unlimited cash for all this. Booking agents tell the tour manager how much they’re likely to make from ticket sales and then the budget for the production is set. Gone are the days when bands would tour to promote an album – no, they have to make their cash on the road. Get this budget wrong and the tour loses money. And so, by extension, does everyone else. No pressure, then…
Andy and his production manager – the person who deals with the physical stage, set and equipment – have five hours to turn a cavernous arena hall into a one-night-only den of decadence (or castle full of fairy princesses, depending on the act). So, breakfast done, it’s up with the rigging.
Video screens and lights – tons and tons of lights – must all be attached to massive metal rigging gantries. The rigging is attached to massive metal chains. The chains are attached to massive electric motors in the roof – they’ll use up to 60 for a huge show like the LG Arena. Then it’s all flown up above the stage. Except that the stage can’t be built while the crew is attaching things to the rigging. What to do?
“We build the stage at the other end of the arena,” says Andy. “While the rigging is assembled at one end, the stage is put together at the other – then it’s rolled the entire length of the hall as the lights are flown, coming to rest directly underneath.” Ingenious.
By noon, the lights and video screens are finished. By 3pm the stage is in place and we’re ready to rock.
The band arrives at 4pm for soundcheck. It’s two hours until the doors open, and punters are already arriving outside. This can create another layer of chaos. Some of them could have been there for days, in fact (Cliff Richard fans are known for this, believe it or not). Or they could be there to buy tickets for a different show – we’re looking at you, One Direction fans. It can be hysteria or it can be mellow. And the clock is ticking…
Soundcheck can take anywhere from 25 minutes to two and a half hours, depending on what needs to be achieved. The band might want to work through a new number, or they might just be late. Ever wondered why some support bands sound so awful? That’s the reason. If the headliner runs over on their soundcheck, the support doesn’t get one. Tough luck; be more famous.
And then, suddenly, it’s showtime. “I might watch the first few numbers, because I’ve been in the office all day. But I’ll take the chance to stare at the wall for a bit and have some peace, too,” says Andy. He’s seen it all before, after all. Every. Single. Night. If they’ve remembered to save him any, he’ll have some dinner too.
Then it’s back to work. Half an hour before the end of the show, as the band thunders away on-stage, he’s talking to the promoter. Sorting out the cash. The important bit. “Half the fee has already been paid in advance; the remainder is agreed and wired to the management.” Andy will also take a bit of loose change – £5000, maybe – on the road for emergencies.
The last song is played, the encore is complete and the show finishes on the dot of 11pm. (Rock and roll will never die, but it does have a bedtime.) Now it’s time to get rid of the crowd. Playing music you know they’ll hate helps here: just put on Slayer? Play some jazz; they’ll clear out soon enough.
Time for Load-Out. Two and a half hours’ more lifting, heaving, sweat and truck fumes. By the end of the tour they’ll have this down to a slim one and a half hours – the crew, 32 permanents who stay on the road and up to 36 freelance locals – pile everything back into the trucks. The hall is empty again; it’s like they were never there.
And now it’s back on the buses to the next venue. It’s 1.30am, and it’s time to try and get some sleep. Only five hours until Load-In…
With special thanks to Ellie Coombes at the LG Arena and Andy Reynolds of www.livemusicbusiness.com
Below: time-lapse of a stage build at LG Arena
John Steward is assistant production editor of What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision